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Oscar Race Is the Year of the Character Actress

Ask Melissa Leo about the challenges of being a “character actor” and she’ll respond with a hearty laugh.

“Because I get hired at the last minute my moniker for myself is ‘Last-Minute Leo.’ They call me in when they don’t know what else to do,” Leo says. She adds that it’s “a badge of honor.”

Actors who have the “character” label may not always land magazine covers (or want them, frankly), but a number of lauded actresses known for getting lost in their roles are dominating this particular awards season with a vengeance. The legendary Frances McDormand (four Oscar noms and one win) in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is one of them, Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread” is another. And of course Leo, who won an Oscar for her role in “The Fighter.”

In the 1960s period drama “Novitiate,” Leo pays a Reverend Mother whose world is turned upside down by new reforms ordered by the Vatican. With only two weeks’ notice before filming began, she was lucky enough to find a nun who could share her experiences with her. But that wasn’t all she did to prepare for the role.

“I was not so comfortable hanging out in the motel where they housed everybody; I think the [other actresses] were having a good time and that was great, but I like to keep closer to my work when I work,” Leo recalls. “The production set me up in one of the dormitories on the school. I will always remember my time shooting there as the time when I was cloistered.”

Holly Hunter won her Academy Award for “The Piano” 23 years ago, and found a substantial big screen role with the moving dramedy “The Big Sick.” The film is based on the real life romance between screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Hunter plays Emily’s mother on screen and while her character was substantially different from Gordon’s real-life mom, she says she exploited Nanjiani, effectively playing himself, to find out all she could.

“I really pillaged him for information,” Hunter says. “Particularly on the day [we were shooting], that was when it was the most fun to get the play-by-play from Kumail virtually as we were doing the scene. It would be a real kick to get what went down in a detailed story that Kumail would tell me as the camera was virtually rolling.”

Hunter has seen her share of Oscar campaigns and starred in movies that were initially pegged as contenders, but quickly became also-rans. She wouldn’t directly comment on her own prospects this time around, but is encouraged by the film’s surprise success with audiences.

“The timing of the movie feels really good for what people are experiencing, what’s going on in the country, in the culture, in the news,” Hunter says. “Even though I think the movie wears that really lightly, that sociological, multicultural non-racist costume, I think it, nevertheless, wears it, and I think people love that. They’ve got a real appetite to see something that is talking, discussing serious topics, but you’re laughing your ass off every 45 seconds.”

It’s extremely rare for one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers to write a leading role with a specific actor in mind, but that the gift Guillermo del Toro bestowed upon Sally Hawkins (one nom for “Blue Jasmine”) with “The Shape of Water.” As Elisa, Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman working at a U.S. military facility where she falls for an amphibious man the government is torturing.

“The timing of the movie feels really good for what people are experiencing, what’s going on in the country, in the culture, in the news.”
Holly Hunter, on “The Big Sick”

She had no idea what was in store for her until she crashed a party alongside her old friend James Gordon and ran into the famed and, um, slightly buzzed Mexican director. “We saw each other at the same time. And in the great Guillermo way that he does, he fully embraced me and lifted me right up, and said, ‘Ah, you know about my girl and you want to be in it? Yes, yes?’ And it was just a weird, lovely equally magic moment where, again, it could only be Guillermo,” Hawkins says. “Just beautiful really. I realized then why I was supposed to be at that party, and it was to see him and the director come together, and it’s magic like that with Guillermo. I think that’s because of who he is, because he’s all encompassing and embracing heart, which is right up there on screen.”

Hawkins had a head start on Elisa after using sign language when appearing in the West End production of “Constellations” a few years prior. She still felt an immense pressure to communicate in American Sign Language as accurately as possible out of respect for the people who use it in their everyday lives.

“I got there nearly two months before because I just wanted to have time to assimilate and process and do my own work,” Hawkins says. “I gave quite a good few weeks, at least five weeks, to try to, not only the ASL thing, everything really. The singing, so there was a lot to do, and it was probably less than I remember, but it was an intense period of time. But I wanted to give myself a bit of a chance and not do it poorly in any way.”

Like Hawkins, Allison Janney was the beneficiary of someone who had her in mind from the beginning. Screenwriter Steven Rogers practically insisted that his good friend, a seven-time Emmy and six-time SAG Award winner, play Tonya Harding’s eccentric mother in “I, Tonya.”

“This is the first part that he wrote for me that I’m actually playing, so it’s really special to me because I love Steven and he gets me and has watched me acting from my early days at Neighborhood Playhouse. He knows what I like to do and what I love,” Janney says. “And he just said, ‘I can’t wait, you’re going to play this woman who wears a molting fur coat, you going to have a bird on your shoulder and you’re going to love it.’”

Laurie Metcalf has been on something of a roll the past few years, earning three Emmy noms in 2016 for three different performances and a Tony Award for “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in June. Her incredible run continues with a heartbreaking turn as a mother struggling to let her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) move on in “Lady Bird.”

At a key moment in the film, director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig follows Metcalf’s character as she drops her daughter off at the airport only to realize she needs to turn the car around and see her one more time. Gerwig shot the scene in one continuous take with Metcalf at the wheel and she had three takes to get it right.

“I felt responsible for figuring out a way to sustain it for that long, you know? Because it’s a long way around that terminal,” Metcalf says. “And so I guess the little journey of that drive is Lady Bird in the rear view mirror, and completely resentful and still angry, and then the realization [of] how long’s it gonna be until they see each other again? And then the decision to go back, and the hope sets in that she’ll make it back in time to say goodbye. So that’s the little journey of the drive, emotionally.”

Yet, even after all her recent accolades and more than 35 years in the business Metcalf still takes all the awards chatter in stride.
“It’s not something that you’re consciously trying to go for, but when the response is positive, it’s always a great feeling,” Metcalf says. “Especially when it’s coming from peers who are excited for your work.”

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